One of the bigger bombshells in The New York Times’ massive Facebook investigation published yesterday was that the company had hired an opposition research and consulting firm known as Definers Public Affairs, which it said had created deceptive news posts and pushed them onto a network of conservative websites. Now, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says he has no idea who hired them.
Definers was hired as part of a lobbying effort intended to counter mounting criticisms of Facebook over the past year. The firm’s role, among other things, included circulating a document tying a prominent anti-Facebook group to financing from billionaire George Soros. Efforts to link liberal causes to Soros are a tactic often used by the alt-right and other conservatives as a dog whistle for anti-Semitism.
Facebook disavowed any anti-Semitic intent for its agency’s work.
“Definers did encourage members of the press to look into the funding of ‘Freedom from Facebook,’ an anti-Facebook organization,” the company said in blog post. “The intention was to demonstrate that it was not simply a spontaneous grassroots campaign, as it claimed, but supported by a well-known critic of our company. To suggest that this was an anti-Semitic attack is reprehensible and untrue.”
Facebook ended its contract with the firm last night after the NYT investigation published
Additionally, Facebook is said to have tapped a Jewish civil rights group to paint criticism of the company as anti-Semitic. (Zuckerberg is Jewish.) The combination of these revelations — as well as the detail that chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg oversaw this lobbying effort to combat Facebook critics — were among the most damning in the report.
Following the revelations, Facebook announced this morning that it cut ties with the firm. But neither Zuckerberg nor Sandberg could or would say who hired the firm — and the company’s top two executives were unaware of the relationship until yesterday, Zuckerberg said. On a call with reporters this morning to ostensibly discuss the company’s updated transparency and content takedown report, Zuckerberg took a series of questions directly related to the Times investigation, and said he was not made aware of the firm’s involvement until yesterday. He also denied that Facebook instructed the firm to spread false information about the company’s critics.
“From what I can tell, that isn’t true. We certainly never asked them to spread anything that is not true. That’s not how we want to operate,” Zuckerberg said in response to one of the many questions about the Definers. “In general, I think a lot of DC-type firms might do this kind of work. I understand why other companies might want to work with them, but that’s not the way I want to run this company.”
Zuckerberg says he and Sandberg were made aware of the firm’s involvement in its lobbying efforts at the same time, implying Sandberg had nothing to do with the Definers’ hiring or any of its operations. “I learned about this relationship when I read The New York Times piece, and like I said, as soon as I read it I looked into whether this is the type of firm that we want to be working with, and we stopped working with them,” Zuckerberg said. “My understanding from talking to our team is not that we had them attack any competitor or anything like that.”
Zuckerberg added that he has “tremendous respect for George Soros, though we disagree on the impact and the importance of the internet overall.” He also said that
“someone on our comms team must have hired them,” in response to another question about the Definers.
At the same time, yesterday’s blog post announcing that Facebook had fired the firm makes note that, “our relationship with Definers was well known by the media — not least because they have on several occasions sent out invitations to hundreds of journalists about important press calls on our behalf.” Clearly, someone at the company knew about the firm’s involvement, and it stretches belief to think that top Facebook executives were unaware of what one of their most high-profile and expensive agencies was doing on their behalf for the past year.